The calendar has flipped to the month of December. Based on everything from the past few months, all of the proposed plans by the NHL, we should be a month away from hockey’s return. It feels we are far from it.
As the league and players association continued discussions throughout November, things hit a snag when the NHL and its owners proposed amendments and modifications to the CBA that was agreed upon prior to the return to play that concluded the 2019-20 season. The players were caught off-guard by these requests and reportedly both blindsided and angry.
So now that it is December, where does the NHL stand in its potential return to play? Is Jan. 1 still a realistic target?
The NHL and Gary Bettman have not wavered from that Jan. 1 target date that was unveiled prior to the NHL Draft nearly two months ago. But with conversations at a minimum and no real concrete talks about the heart of the matter – the collective bargaining agreement and balance of revenue sharing – there is really no progress to report. Another week has gone by and we are no closer to an NHL season.
This is certainly troubling as every other league seems to be powering forward, for better or worse. Yes, the NFL has been a nightmare this week and throughout the season with multiple postponements and rescheduling, but they have played. Yes, Major League Baseball just completed a 60-game season that started with labor disagreements and progressed into a COVID-19 nightmare at the start. NCAA football and basketball have had their share of cancellations over the weeks as college programs have dealt with the effects of COVID-19. There have still been a full slate of games every weekend.
Perhaps most importantly, it is the NHL’s direct competitor in the winter months, the NBA, that has really figured things out the most so far. They have a schedule. They have a start date. They are going to be back by the end of the month it would appear.
As things sit at a standstill, not only is the NHL’s target date of Jan. 1 looking unlikely, but the NHL will also see a significantly later start than the NBA and a much shorter schedule. While there was a proposed 60-game plan on the table for the NHL, the longer the negotiations last and the further the target date gets pushed back, the shorter the season will be.
It may be realistic at this point to envision a similar season structure to 2013, when the NHL returned in mid-January from a lockout and played a 48-game season with the playoffs ending in late June.
Of course, hockey has more scheduling and travel complications than any other sport. All of the NFL’s teams are in the US. Both the NBA and MLB have just one team north of the border. The NHL has seven to work with and given Canada’s border restrictions are going nowhere anytime soon, not only is a Canadian division pretty much a certainty, it is going to force the timeline longer because of necessary quarantine.
Speaking of Canada, they like much of the hockey world have shut down a lot of the activity. Unless you are playing overseas in Europe – which isn’t problem-free either – or happen to be one of the few NCAA hockey teams getting some action, you likely are not playing competitively. The QMJHL was the only league in the CHL that had started their season, and they announced on Monday a shutdown of the league into January, starting their holiday break 17 days early. It is alarming to say the least.
So on one hand, the NHL and the hockey world in general are being very cognizant to the fact that COVID-19 is going to remain a problem and that they want as close to a fool-proof plan as possible, knowing that they cannot ask players to isolate in a bubble for six months but also trying to have a season in the safest way possible.
While there are a handful of owners who feel like they would have fewer losses if the league didn’t play at all in 2020-21, there are more who feel the league will not survive another season-long shutdown or lockout.
Deadlines will bring about more action. For now, things are not dire for not having a season at all, but it seems impossible to think that a 60-game season starting at the beginning of January is happening. The waiting game continues as the NHL ponders what the next move is, but it is looking more and more like we will wait at least another full month before even training camps get underway.